by Sage Shemroske
Vivian McCall – known on the Chicago scene most notably as bassist for rock collective Jungle Green – presents her first solo album as Pansy: an intimate and ultimately playful look at what it means to understand yourself, this lo-fi record reaches out for reason and finds its own hand
One of my first interactions with Vivian McCall was through Instagram when her page, @criminalmeme, was mostly dedicated to posting photos of funny license plates. Years later, while emailing her regarding a write up of her former band, Jungle Green, she referred to her band mates as ’40-50 feral hogs’. She’s simply someone good natured and funny. She’s natural in everything she does and that exudes from debut self titled album, Pansy.
I heard a demo from Pansy long ago via Instagram DMs (true to brand) and it felt intimate, which is a consistent feeling throughout the record. Pansy evokes the feeling of dancing alone in your own dimmed light; the private joy of your own bedroom. This doesn’t stop McCall from inserting just the right amount of absurdity into Pansy. On Tomorrow, When I’m Better, dystopian soundbites of McCall repeating phrases like ‘I like who I am’ and ‘I always work to improve myself’ loop as the track glitches in and out. It’s funny and sincere – sounding like a nightmare self help tape while trying to convince itself to believe just a little bit that it will get better. Pansy is an album that, at one point, felt like an intruder in its own body and crescendos from there.
The production of Pansy crackles as though we’re in the room with McCall. It has the down to earth styling and amicable nature of Dear Nora. But she is ever the technician – balancing the unpretentious with the fine tuned. She plays a tin-y guitar with a little music box backing on Turn Ur Back asking ‘do you even care?’ and finally feeling able to step away (even if she’s still wondering ‘what have I done?’).
McCall swiftly blends thrumming rounds, gently plucked strings, and 60s jukebox pop on Pansy. A music nerd at heart, Pansy could never be confined to just one thing, and, on a personal level, it could never be defined as just one thing. ‘Doesn’t always feel right, I don’t always know,’ she sings on Mommi Housi with warm backing vocals. Who can say they’ve never felt that about how they’ve previously and presently inhabit(ed) a body? Just to proclaim ‘I’m alive’ is sometimes an accomplishment in itself, which McCall grasps on Me In Mine – singing ‘It’s real, fuck you!’ Sometimes that is the celebration: living another day to figure out who you are. Nothing could be more special.
‘In a world that doesn’t want you to cry,’ it also feels impossible not to note the message baked into the phrase ‘pansy’ itself. It is used to degrade people for exhibiting behaviour deemed feminine or womanly, but really is just a pleasant flower. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, or maybe McCall has a tongue in cheek message after all. Softly, sweetly singing ‘do you ever wake up and feel like trash?’ McCall writes keen lullabies for the diarists, the unemployed, and the trans weirdos on your close friends story.
There is just a kiss of liberation on Woman Of Ur Dreams – a surfy and bouncy love song for yourself. ‘I’m no boy, I’ve left that scene,’ a different type of womanhood emerging. There is a former lover mentioned, but it’s not about them, and not even necessarily meant for them. Every track on Pansy is present. Deeply aware. McCall sometimes talks to the past, whether it’s a past relationship or more frequently a past self; not because she longs for it, but because she can finally healthily reconcile with it. There are moments of full realisation on Pansy too – not in grand revelations but in the quotidian. ‘My new hair is golden blonde,’ she sings on the Mark Linkous-like Shoes. Those moments of being in your friend’s kitchen and thinking this change will make you prettier and more interesting. And even if that’s untrue, it still feels good and pure.
Pansy also contains a playful call into the void – ‘somebody help me, anybody help me,’ which is the kind of question you ask yourself a few times a month if you’re twenty-something. But the song isn’t really a call for help falling on deaf ears, but a dedication to herself and the knowledge that only McCall can keep herself alive. Anybody Help Me is a dedication to herself for living this long – though not necessarily because of resilience, but a sort of persevering spite. Which is not to say that McCall is steeped in irony. In fact, much like her old license plate memes, she is finding humour in the mundane – stripped of irony, and showing off a piece of herself identity with no shame and a touch of corniness. Pansy is the shiny pink scar that only comes from living as an open wound.